Friday, September 26, 2008

Review: Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson, That Lucky Old Sun (Capitol, 2008)

That Lucky Old Sun : Morning Beat : Room with a View (narrative) : Good Kind of Love : Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl : Venice Beach (narrative) : Live Let Live / That Lucky Old Sun (reprise) : Mexican Girl : Cinco de Mayo (narrative) : California Role / That Lucky Old Sun (reprise) : Between Pictures (narrative) : Oxygen to the Brain : Can't Wait Too Long : Midnight's Another Day : That Lucky Old Sun (reprise) : Going Home : Southern California

Total time 38:07

Two nights before I bought this album, I watched Brian Wilson on the Tonight Show and got sad. There he was, conspicuously ill at ease, sitting at an unplayed keyboard, silent during group vocal passages, surrounded by musicians whose energy and dedication heightened the pathos of the situation.

When I first listened to That Lucky Old Sun, with that televised performance in mind, a line from "Midnight's Another Day" struck me: "All these people make me feel so alone." And I then remembered a passage from the music critic Derek Jewell's review of a less-than-great late-1973 Duke Ellington concert: "I'm in favour of him, at all seasons, you understand, and if he doesn't merit such warmth of attitude, who does?" That Lucky Old Sun may not be a great album: it's not Orange Crate Art or SMiLE (the twin peaks of Wilson's solo career). But it's good, very good, with several excellent songs and many beautiful instrumental and vocal touches. Most importantly, it's the work of the only Brian Wilson we have.

Musically, That Lucky Old Sun looks back in time: to the 1940s Haven Gillespie–Beasley Smith song that inspired the album, to the Four Seasons, "When I'm Sixty-Four," and Barenaked Ladies' "Brian Wilson," and to many moments of Beach Boys history: "Child Is Father of the Man," "Do It Again," "Don't Worry Baby," "Good Vibrations," "Heroes and Villains," "Passing By," "Sail On Sailor," "Surf's Up," "'Til I Die," "Wind Chimes." There is a tremendously exciting and too brief rendition of the Wild Honey-era "Can't Wait Too Long." Several songs — "Good Kind of Love," "Live Let Live," "Oxygen to the Brain" — evoke the genial and loopy material of the Beach Boys' 15 Big Ones and The Beach Boys Love You. At other points, notably in "Southern California," we're in the lush territory of Sunflower. Even the slighter songs here have wonderful moments: the chord changes in the chorus of "Mexican Girl," the parallel major sevenths in "Going Home."

Lyrically, the album is a very mixed bag. There are occasional bits of the preoccupation with "health" that runs through the Wilson canon, with lyrics that sometimes verge on outsider art:

I laid around this old place
I hardly ever washed my face ("Oxygen to the Brain")
Some of the least effective moments of That Lucky Old Sun present Brian Wilson as a figure of mythic autobiography:
A goddess became my song ("Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl")

Fell asleep in the band room
Woke up in history ("Southern California")
Yes, it's all true, but it's very difficult to make such material seem anything other than self-regarding (cf. "The Ballad of John and Yoko" or Frank Sinatra's Trilogy). Almost every song here lists bandmember Scott Bennett as co-composer, so it's difficult to know who's responsible for what, but I find it difficult to imagine Brian Wilson writing about himself in these ways.

That Lucky Old Sun is presented as a suite, its songs punctuated by reprises of the title piece and by four spoken interludes ("narratives") with words by Van Dyke Parks. The overall effect is compelling. It's helpful to remember that Brian Wilson has done spoken-word before, in the deeply personal and deeply strange "Mount Vernon and Fairway" (released with the Beach Boys' Holland). He reads Parks' hipster poetry with engagement and wit:
City of Angels
Be all you can be
Be movies
Be A-list
Be seen just to see ("Cinco de Mayo")
The most arresting song here is "Midnight's Another Day," a song of loss and renewal, and a worthy successor to "Surf's Up," "'Til I Die," and "Still I Dream of It." It is beautiful and heartbreaking, and its brief passage for voices and sleighbells is one more shining moment of Brian Wilson's pure and generous genius.

One suggestion: the supporting musicians deserve much more than the near-anonymity they're reduced to here. They are, after all, the musicians who brought us Pet Sounds and SMiLE as note-perfect live performances (I know; I was there for both). Photographs and clearer credits, please.

comments: 8

thalkowski said...

I largely agree w/ your review. I would just add that artists all through the years often worked in a 'corporate' or guild manner. Certainly Ellington did, but also Titian, Rubens, etc. They had teams of folks who worked on their projects, then they'd step in to add the 'master' touches.

Brian Wilson's reliance on the 'wondermints' folks seems of a piece with that style of artistic production. Not solitary 'genius', but (in Brian Eno's terms) 'scenious.'

Michael Leddy said...

Oh, I think it's great that Brian has the Wondermints and company to work with. But it seems odd to hear a solo voice other than Brian's (as in the first chorus of "California Role") and have no idea who's singing. That's what bugs me about the anonymity here, which I think has much to do with marketing.

Ellington's a great example — all kinds of material from his musicians went into the hopper. But you know that it's Johnny Hodges, or Cootie Williams, and so on, when someone's soloing.

thalkowski said...


By the way, that solo voice on 'california role' sounded vaguely like Van Dyke Parks, but I think I read somewhere that he didn't perform on the cd.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, I think it's supposed to evoke early VDP. My guess is that it's Scott Bennett, but only because it doesn't sound like Jeffrey Foskett or Darian Sahanaja.

Andrew Hickey said...

Just saw this after reading your review of the Gershwin album. I believe (I'd have to rewatch the live DVD to double-check) it's Nick 'Nicky Wonder' Walusko doing the California Role vocals, much like his pirate vocals on Holidays on Smile.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Andrew!

I just read and really liked your review of this album. It’s interesting to see where our points of view meet and diverge. I liked your review of Al Jardine’s album too (which I don’t yet have).

I’m glad to meet someone else who appreciates “Will You Remember Me?” Have you heard Susannah McCorkle’s recording of it? Is there another you’d recommend?

Unknown said...

I am stunned by the reckless and rotten things some critics said (and still say? about "Orange Crate Art." The most outstanding charges focus on Brian Wilson's singing and VDP's "overwrought" arranging and orchestration. While there is room for differences of opinion, it must,somewhere be stated, that OCA is a magnificent piece of work. The ideas that the lyrics are too clever for pop music and that the sea of orchestration submerges melody are pure balderdash and hokum. Brian's vocals provide what VDP vocal never could: richness and broader harmony. And VDP's arranging and orchestration do what no pop arranger's work has really ever done: to listen with care and to open those subcortical spaces with wickedly large canopy of satisfying sound.

I consider OCA one of the four or five breakaway musical effort in pop music (along with the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper and Steely Dan's Aja)

By the way, outside of earning a living, I think we all know thet VDP has never lived for critical response. He knows his qualities and defects much better than anyone else.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Alan. Hearing “Orange Crate Art” in I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times changed my life. The album seems to stand apart from any idea of fashion or trend, in a time and place of its own devising. I’m getting carried away, but as you can tell, I’m crazy about it.

Van Dyke’s versions of the song have many charms of their own. Even with just piano, bass, and drums, there’s a strong sense of the orchestral arrangement.